565. ‘When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going’, by Billy Ocean

The 3rd number one single of 1986, and the third one with what I’d term a ‘distinctive’ intro. From the subtle build of ‘West End Girls’ to this: the song’s title chopped, sliced and diced into an uber-‘80s ‘look what my mixing desk can do!’ mess.

When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going, by Billy Ocean (his 1st and only #1)

4 weeks, from 2nd February – 2nd March 1986

Tough-t-t-t-tuh-tuh-tuh-tough ooh! The barking voice reminds me of ‘Who Let the Dogs Out’. Nothing that reminds me of ‘Who Let the Dogs Out’ can be anything other than reprehensible. Luckily, once the intro is out of the way, things settle down and a decent pop song begins to shine through. I like the bass, and the calypso rhythm. It’s a summer smash, several months too early. I’ve got something to tell you, I’ve got something to say… Billy Ocean sings it smoothly; thankfully nothing like the Baha Men.

I wonder if this is based on a traditional tune, as reggae songs are (even though this is reggae in the loosest sense…) The chorus especially has a nursery-rhyme feel to it. But no, ‘When the Going Gets Tough…’ was written in 1985, for the soundtrack to the Michael Douglas film ‘The Jewel of the Nile’ (it seems the song is much better remembered than the movie…) So it may not be an old song, but it definitely has retro touches. The Darlin’… I’ll climb any mountain… is very sixties Motown, as are the Ooh-ohh-ohh-hoos… lifted straight from ‘Build Me Up Buttercup’.

There’s also a very mid-eighties sax solo. But it’s palatable –I have a very low tolerance for eighties saxophone solos – and works well with the song’s overall jauntiness. I like this: it’s catchy, fun, exuberant… once the intro’s over. I mentioned in my last post that A-ha’s ‘The Sun Only Shines on TV’ might have been a ‘shadow’ number one, and I did wonder if this also might have been one. Had ‘Caribbean Queen (No More Love on the Run)’ and ‘Get Outta My Dreams, Get into My Car’ – Billy Ocean was one for a good, long song title – immediately preceded it? No. This record was a chart-topper, fair and square.

If I had to choose a song to be Ocean’s sole #1 hit, though, I’d definitely go for the even more Motown-leaning ‘Love Really Hurts Without You’, which had been his breakthrough hit, making #2 a full decade before this. Sadly, and reluctantly, I’ve come to accept that I will never be able to personally control the charts… (though the world would be a much better, Ed Sheeran-less place if I did…)

Billy Ocean’s chart career didn’t last far beyond the late-eighties, though he continues to record and perform, his latest album making the charts in 2020. ‘When the Going Gets Tough…’, meanwhile, will be back at the top of the charts before the century is out.

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12 thoughts on “565. ‘When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going’, by Billy Ocean

  1. Indeed – a well-deserved No. 1 (dare I say it’s one of the few of 1986 that really merit that praise?). You could always rely on Billy to give us a catchy soul-pop number that deserves to stand alongside the Motown classics. This and ‘Love Really Hurts…’ still sound as infectiously timeless as they ever did 30 and 40 years on.

  2. …oh, and I remember spinning this regularly at discos, where on a good night everybody on the dance floor would sing along lustily to the title as ‘Go and get stuffed’…

  3. A fun ’80s pop song for me and like how Michael Douglas, Danny DeVito, and Kathleen Turner play the backup singers in the video. Billy Ocean is one of those artists that despite having a bunch of hits didn’t have much of a public or flashy persona that you expect from other big pop stars. The kind you can hear all the time and still not be able to recognize on the street. I mainly know about Billy Ocean from the Everybody Hates Chris show where Chris Rock’s sister is shown as a massive Billy Ocean fan even thinking Michael Jackson stole the moonwalk from him. But for a star like him, he did very well for himself through the ’80s and got three #1s over here in the US with songs that all had eight-word titles when you include parentheses. Perhaps the fact that “When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Gets Going” had nine words is why it peaked at #2. Billy Ocean was apparently very into Motown influences which Tom Breihan notes in his followup “There’ll Be Sad Song (To Make You Cry)” and how its US #1 success probably has more to do with people liking “When The Going Gets Tough,” “Given that “There’ll Be Sad Songs (To Make You Cry)” is a fairly boring and anonymous song, I feel like its success on the American charts might’ve had something to do with people being into “When The Going Gets Tough.” But who knows, maybe “Sad Songs” really did make people cry.”

    • Yeah, he loved a long song title… And I’m a big believer in ‘shadow’ number ones, songs that get there because of a better, earlier track by the same act that may or may not have made #1. Not to be confused with certain acts who attain the status of reaching #1 with whatever they release, no matter how shit (see, for the British charts at least, Westlife…)

      • The critic Chris Molanphy was this term called the AC/DC rule which usually applies to albums but could very well apply to singles in how a song or album coming off a huge success will do better on the charts mainly from people being high off the previous work and isn’t as remembered which is what you’re describing. It’s named after AC/DC as they have a great example in their first US #1 album being not the massive selling career best but #4 peaking Back in Black but the followup 1981’s For Those About to Rock since there was a lot of hype coming from Back in Black.

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  5. Love Billy, saw him a few years ago and still loveable and in fine voice. I was never a huge fan of his big hits after Caribbean Queen and Loverboy and im also more of a fan of his 70s stuff esp Love Really Hurts, Red Light Spells Danger and most of all the rocking monster track On The Run released under the name Scorched Earth in 1974. It wasnt a hit but i bought it. Still love it. Its not the same recording as his weedier cover in the 80s under his own name. Worth digging out the original tho as it shows he could easily have been the frontman of a rock band if he had felt inclined….

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