Top 40 Smash Near Misses — “To Live and Die in L.A.”

These posts are about the songs that fell just short of crossing the key line of chart success, entering the Billboard Top 40. Every song featured in this series peaked at number 41.

After drummer Darren Costin left the group, Wang Chung was down to a duo, and the remaining members, lead singer Jack Hues and bassist Nick Feldman, were open to new and different challenges as they charted their path forward. At just about the same time, director William Friedkin was looking for a pop act to provide the score for his new crime thriller set in Los Angeles. Friedkin had an Oscar on his shelf, for The French Connection, and with that and The Exorcist he could claim authorship of two of biggest, most influential movies of the nineteen-seventies. Presumably, he was interested in reasserting his commercial and artistic credentials (the most recent of a string of duds was the roundly ignored Chevy Chase vehicle Deal of the Century), and it surely couldn’t have evaded his notice that the television series Miami Vice was a blazing sensation that skillfully merged artful rock songs with stylish visuals. He was evidently a fan of Wang Chung’s 1984 album, Points on the Curve, especially the track “Wait.” He asked the group to score his film and they agreed. They also insisted they and Friedkin weren’t trying to bottle the same bolts of lightning that Michael Mann did with his show about Florida police detectives.

“I don’t think Bill would be influenced by faddy things like Miami Vice, as good as it may be,” Feldman said at the time.

Friedkin also wasn’t interested in adhering to a more conventional approach to movie scoring. He told Wang Chung to start writing music before showing them any footage, giving the direction to go into the studio and come up with roughly an hour of material that he could add to the movie as he saw fit. Even when Friedkin did start sending over footage, the band chose not to look at it, fearing it would make them doubt what they already had down on tape. Also in defiance of the prevailing norms of the moment — and backing up the claim that aping Miami Vice wasn’t a goal — Friedkin told the band he didn’t want a song, just score. Wang Chung decided to write one anyway. When they brought it to Friedkin, he was initially irritated. Then he listened to the song, which like his film was titled “To Live and Die in L.A.,” and he loved it. He added the song to the film and it was released as a single from the soundtrack album.

To Live and Die in L.A. was a modest hit, whether the film or the song. Friedkin’s movie opened in second place at the box office, behind Death Wish 3, and went in to earn a little more than $17 million in the U.S., just ahead of The Falcon and the Snowman and just behind Invasion U.S.A. The soundtrack album peaked at #85 on the Billboard album chart and the single stopped its upward climb on the Hot 100 at #41. It’s entirely likely Wang Chung made more money off the song when they repurposed for a Michelob commercial a couple years later.

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Top 40 Smash Near Misses” tag.

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